Photonics in Switzerland

In the following the scientific results of the NCCR Quantum Photonics (QP), a continuation of the earlier Swiss priority programs "Optique I/II" of the ETH-Board, are presented. While in those fore-running programs physicists from university & industry worked together on both research fundamentals & technology developments, QP focussed mainly on basic research topics due to exciting new phenomena in quantum optics. Based on the excellent QP-outputs, a NCCR follow-up program MUST, which covers the field of short laser pulse physics, was started 2010 and first reports were presented at the SPS Annual meeting 2012. On the other side, an effective and efficient knowledge transfer to the established and global acting optical industry is missing. A professional transfer program like the national priority programs is needed to bridge the gap. How such a program should be structured and managed, is described in the article "Nationale Förderinitiativen zur Stärkung des Wissentransfers zwischen Hochschule und Industrie".

Bernhard Braunecker


NCCR Quantum Photonics: 20 Years of Optics Research in Switzerland

Christoph Harder and Karl Knop, member of the NCCR QP Direction Committee and the SNSF Review Panel, respectively


Swiss Optical Programs

The NCCR Quantum Photonics will finish next year after 12 years of intensive research. It was installed in 2001 by the SNSF as basic research follow-up program to the applied priority program "Optique I and II", which ran from 1993-95 and 1996-99, respectively. These first seven years of intensified support of optics research through the "Optique" initiatives created quite some momentum in Switzerland, which together with abundant money flowing in venture enterprises, had pushed the country into a leading position for modern optics by the end of last century. NCCR QP was designed to make this early success sustainable. The director of Optique II, Marc Ilegems from EPFL became the new director of NCCR QP until his retirement in 2003.

The first four year phase of NCCR QP turned out to become a most difficult time. On one hand, the applied "Optique" effort was moved over to a basic research NCCR QP programme. On the other hand, the "dot-com bubble" collapsed in 2000 and 2001 completely. Attractive industrial partners for common projects with public research either disappeared or did run out of research money. The whole program of NCCR QP went through a massive metamorphosis over its first active period. When Benôit Devenaud-Plédran took over as director, the program was with few exceptions streamlined towards high-level quantum optics research with an application horizon, which typically exceeding the duration of the NCCR QP. Despite this reorientation, management of the NCCR QP never gave up in promoting technology transfer and can be proud of a number of success stories. The well done website cites six SMEs and start-ups closely linked into the NCCR QP programme.

Remarkable Highlights

The main achievements of the NCCR QP, however, can be found in an astonishing number of outstanding basic research results, ranging from pure quantum optics to new quantum devices and advanced light sources. While the sheer number of publications matches the amount of public money, the very high number of highly cited papers is impressive. Again, it is worthwhile to consult the website for a complete review. Picking just a few examples may demonstrate the high level of research. In addition, more than 300 physicists and engineers had to opportunity to complement their education through a doctoral or post doctoral programme in world leading effort in quantum photonics.

At EPFL the group of Benôit Devenaud-Plédran with the theoretical support of Vincenzo Savonas group could demonstrate for the first time that Polaritons, which are quasi particles made up of electrons, holes and photons, exhibit so-called Bose-Einstein condensation, possibly even at room temperature. This experimental set-up offers completely new insights into the optical quantum state.

The group of Nicolas Gisin in Geneva made substantial progress in a technique called quantum-cryptography. The basic idea is to send information using single photons or pairs of photons, which are encoded in specific quantum states along the classical optical fibres network. Using a pair of entangled photons to teleport a quantum state from one location to the other inherently prevents counterfeiting. Some of these world leading results have found their way into commercial products. These results manifest also, that photonics is the ideal playground to demonstrate generic quantum physics effects; entanglement of quantum states has been so demonstrated over distances of 250 km !

NCCR QP was also effective in attracting young highly talented scientists. With Tobias Kippenberg the new field of Cavity Quantum Optomechanics was installed at EPFL. In small optical cavities with extremely high quality factors photon pressure can build up to deform the cavity. Although the mechanical amplitudes are extremely small, typically in the fm range, they may be used for interaction with mechanical devices, such as cantilevers with potential application in metrology or laser cooling of large object up to 1 kg (e.g. for gravity wave experiments).

The projects in the field of advanced light sources produced some exciting results, which may be closer to an industrial application than most results from the other areas. For instance, UV and blue laser devices based on GaN material have been developed by Nicolas Grandjeans group at EPFL and are currently commercialized by the spin-off company Novagan. Also the work on Quantum Cascade Lasers by the group of Jerome Faist at ETHZ made continuous progress towards practical use in a variety of applications, ranging from spectroscopy, biosensorics to data communication. Finally, Ursula Keller (ETHZ) with her work on ultrafast laser pulses invented the "attoclock" with electron tunnelling on an attosecond timescale, which paves the way to applications in biology and physical chemistry.

Part of this work will be continued in the NCCR MUST (Molecular Ultrafast Science and Technology). It was launched by the SNF in 2010 and can be seen as the seamless continuation of the Swiss optics research support, as it started in 1993 with the Optique I Priority Programme.

Final Event "Photonics without Frontiers"

On 14-15 June 2012, EPFL celebrated the successful completion of the NCCR QP with a conference on "Photonics without frontiers". High-level speakers, amongst them three Nobel-laureates, addressed key topics of Quantum Photonics from the past and the present (Figure 1). Over 200 participants attended the conference, 36 posters were presented by PhDs students and post-docs and 10 startups/SMEs and industrial partners had demonstration booths. It was a very enjoyable two day event illustrating the outstanding progress in Swiss optics over the past 20 years. It is no exaggeration to say, that together with semiconductor electronics it is photonics who makes our world today.

Critical Questions

At this point a few critical questions may be allowed. Are priority programs, characterized by a strong focus on a particular theme and generously financed by public money (SNF and hosting institutions) an efficient scheme to advance science and technology ? Does it make sense to direct R&D money for 8-12 years into one and the same field of science ? And does such a big program need a professional administration ?

Amongst the members of the SNSF Review Panel, which periodically had to evaluate the results of NCCR QP, there is a wide consensus that this form of research funding is best suited of efficiently spending money. However, there is also great risk that things get on a wrong track or one reacts too slowly if new ideas arise. The key to success is the proper management ! It is primordial to engage a director, who not only understands science but also has management experience, especially for people management. For the science part a Scientific Advisory Board may help to get the act together. In the case of NCCR QP such a board was only installed at a later state. For the classical management part (unfortunately usually not the strength of academic people) an equivalent body was missing. The challenges in managing such a big program are manifold, ranging from the motivation of young people in the most important time of their post graduate education to the psychological handling of situations if the funding of a group work could not be extended after 4 years.

Another topic which deserves some critical review is the technology and knowledge transfer. NCCR QP management undertook quite some efforts to bring applied results into products. Some encouraging results have been mentioned above. Obviously the biggest impact happens by those physicists who completed their education within the NCCR QP and joined industry or other research institutes. It is recommended to keep track of them and periodically bring them back to refresh their networking and their knowledge. However, the true highlights of the program remain those results published in high-ranking scientific journals like Physical Review.

In conclusion, the greatest impact of 20 years of focused R&D funding in Optics and Photonics is that a community of researchers at universities and in industries have been brought together in an organized way, which otherwise would have met only occasionally. This community will survive, also by the many young people who have moved from academia to industry, even when focused funding will diminish or move to higher level, e.g. European funding within Horizon 2020, where Photonics is one of the five Key Enabling Technologies.



[Released: September 2012]